Cosmo

How do I sum up the experience of eating in Cosmo? How can I possibly distil such a complex experience, so many different types of food, into a single review? Well, maybe I should start at the end of the meal. There were four of us round the table (I know: people actually wanted to come with me!), looking at our largely empty plates, feeling a mixture of remorse and queasy fear about how our bodies would cope with what came next. Tim, chosen for this mission because he is one of the biggest gluttons I know, paused for a second and said “I don’t think this place is going to help anybody have a healthy relationship with food.”

There was further silence and the rest of us tried to digest what he had said (trying to digest, it turned out, would be a theme over the next forty-eight hours).

“I don’t really feel like I’ve eaten in a restaurant this evening.” Tim went on. “I just feel like I’ve spent time smashing food into my mouth.”

I looked down at the leftovers on my plate – a solitary Yorkshire pudding stuffed with crispy duck and topped with hoi sin (it was my friend Ben’s idea and it sounded like a brilliant plan at the time) and started to laugh hysterically. It might have been all the sugar in the Chinese food, the sweet white crystals on top of the crispy seaweed, but I felt, in truth, a little delirious.

“Nobody should leave a restaurant feeling this way.” said Ben, possibly the other biggest glutton I’ve ever met and a man who has never, to the best of my knowledge, left a restaurant entirely replete. We all nodded, too full to speak. I can’t remember who got onto this topic, but there was a general consensus that we were all dreading our next visit to the bathroom and then, having said all that and paid up, we waddled out onto Friar Street and into the night.

Alternatively, maybe I should sum up the experience of eating at Cosmo by recounting the conversations on Facebook the next day. I won’t name names, but we had I had to sleep with a hot water bottle on my belly to aid with digestion, along with I still feel ill, not to forget the more evocative my burps taste of MSG and – look away now if you’re easily shocked – I just did something approximating to a poo and it wasn’t pretty. Tim was feeling so grotty that he worked from home, all of us felt icky and found ourselves daydreaming about salad or vegetables – you don’t see many vegetables at Cosmo, you know – and hoping for some time in the future when the meal was a distant memory.

The thing is that if I started to sum up Cosmo that way you might just assume that I went with some greedy pigs, we all ate too much, made ourselves poorly and have nobody but ourselves to blame. So maybe I should start more conventionally at the point where we walked in and were escorted to a Siberian table for four right at the back, close to the emergency exit, far from daylight. You go in past a display of bread and vegetables in little baskets (I can only assume this is a heroic piece of misdirection, or some kind of in-joke) and then you wind up in some kind of windowless all-you-can-eat dungeon.

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of Cosmo, may I first express my undying envy before going on to explain: it is indeed a gigantic buffet where you can consume as much food as you like for two hours before your time is up and you are asked to leave. Serving staff constantly circle the room while you are up at the cooking stations, whisking away your old plate so that when you sit down you can almost forget just how much food you have consumed. I bet you’re getting peckish just reading this, right?

All major cuisines are represented, provided your idea of major cuisines is largely Chinese and Indian. There are other things on offer – sushi, pizza (or, as Tim referred to it, “random pizza”, when he stuck a slice of one right next to his crispy duck pancake), a big wodge of unappetising pink gammon you were invited to carve yourself, something described as “beef stew”, I could go on – but the general theme is pan-Asian. The “pan” might be short for “pandemic”.

The experience of eating at Cosmo is very different from a traditional meal where you all sit down at a table, decide what you want and then chat away while someone cooks and brings it to you (it’s very different in the sense that Ryanair, for instance, is very different from British Airways). I would say there were very few moments where all four of us were sitting down at once: instead we were frequently prowling from one cooking station to the other, finding things to stick on our fresh plates, wondering if our choices went with one another, wondering whether it mattered, wondering where Ben got the idea of sticking crispy duck in a Yorkshire pudding like a massive demented vol-au-vent (You haven’t lived until you’ve put sushi, Yorkshire pudding and rogan josh together on the same plate said someone on Twitter – hi Pete! – in the run-up to my visit: all I can say is I still haven’t lived, and I’m fine with that).

When we were talking, most of the conversation revolved around one of three topics, namely “this dish isn’t half as bad as I thought it would be”, “try this, it’s truly atrocious” or, and this one was mainly led by me, “what possessed you to put crispy duck in a Yorkshire pudding?”

When you get to Cosmo you’re a bit like a kid in a sweet shop at first (although who over the age of six wants to have dinner in a sweetshop?). The other way that the experience is different to a normal meal out is that as the evening wears on, the mood gets slightly more deranged. Maybe it’s the cumulative effect of all that sugar, maybe it’s the body’s way of expressing Vitamin C withdrawal symptoms, or maybe it’s my fault because I collated a list of all the things people had recommended and I was insistent that we try them all. It was like an I-Spy book or something, and I directed people with military precision: You, go get some sushi. Tim, check out the prawns with ginger and spring onion. I’ll hit the teppanyaki station. Meet you back here in a couple of minutes. All right, let’s move out! If that doesn’t sound like fun then take it from me, the element of co-ordinated planning and being in it together was probably the most fun thing about the evening (well, that and bonding over our bowel movements the next day).

Finally, let’s talk about the food. Between us we ate so many dishes that it’s difficult to go into forensic detail about everything, but as a general rule I’d say the things I expected to be good were poor and the things I expected to be dreadful weren’t quite as bad as I feared. For instance I had the teppanyaki station recommended to me, so I made sure I had some seared scallops (or, more literally, a scallop cut into thin slices and griddled) and some very thin steak wrapped around enoki mushrooms, also griddled. The scallops were pleasant if basic, the enoki tasted of nothing but oil and the steak, if it tasted of anything, tasted of oily mushrooms. Similarly, I went to the grill station and asked for something off the bone and they recommended the pork. It still had a bone in it and I watched the chef slice it on a board before handing it to me. It was some miraculous cut of pork that was made only of bone, fat and crackling, presumably from a pig which had spent its entire life lying down.

CosmoTeppan

What else? Well, Tim pronounced the samosas and spring rolls as “rubbish” (nothing in them, he said), an adjective he also applied to his lamb rogan josh. I tried a bit of the latter and I tended to agree, the lamb and the sauce felt like they had spent their whole lives apart before being stirred together at the last minute, no depth of flavour in the meat, nothing you couldn’t do yourself with a jar of sauce from Loyd Grossman. The tandoori chicken was apparently dry. The most derision was reserved for the “crab claw”, something made of goodness knows what, a wodge of awful, indeterminate homogenous beige material not dissimilar to a washing up sponge. Tim disliked his so much he insisted that Ben try one and Ben, a man I have never known to turn down food, had a mouthful and abandoned the rest. The sushi was also judged to be pretty grim, claggy and flavourless, soggy seaweed and all.

CosmoBuns

There were some slightly better dishes. The chicken satay was nice enough, although certainly no better than chicken satay I’ve had at dozens of other places in Reading and beyond. The stir fried green beans were thoroughly enjoyable, although that might just have been the novelty value of eating something that was actually green. We all quite liked the char siu and the black pepper chicken, although again not enough to tell people to make a beeline for Cosmo just to eat them. The steamed pork buns divided opinion – some of us liked them, some found them just too sweet. Again, China Palace undoubtedly does them better, and China Palace is itself arguably nothing special. Tim liked the pad Thai, and Ben seemed not to mind the southern fried chicken. The crispy seaweed was lovely, but then I could eat crispy seaweed all day. Also in the Chinese section were some miniature hash browns with spring onion: they were about as out of place as I was.

CosmoPork

Before I went to Cosmo someone very wise on Twitter – hello Dan! – said that he treated the place as an all you can eat duck pancake meal. I think this might be the best way to approach Cosmo: again, it was okay rather than amazing but perhaps the trick is to find a dish that never lets you down and stock up on that. We all started on this dish and a couple of us went back to it later on when the other options ran out of appeal. There was also crispy pork, also for pancakes, and I was a little concerned that the pork and the duck didn’t taste quite as different as they could have done. Still, even if it was a bunch of faintly meaty fluffy strands it hit the spot in a way that most of the other dishes couldn’t.

CosmoDuck

“It’s important not to be snobby about Cosmo.” said Ben towards the end of the meal as he ate his trio of miniature desserts, three little sponge cakes (he was the only person to have any dessert – he wasn’t a big fan of them, though). Maybe he’s right: there’s undoubtedly a place for this kind of restaurant and a market for it, which is why there are queues outside it at the weekend. It’s cheap – all you can eat (which, by the end of my evening, had mutated into “all you can bear”) for fourteen pounds on a week night. I can also see it would be perfect for parents, for big groups, for indecisive people or, and I sometimes forget how many of these there are in every town, not just Reading, people who Just Don’t Like Food That Much.

In my ivory tower, enthusing about the likes of Papa Gee, Perry’s or Pepe Sale it’s easy for me to forget that some people just want to get fuelled up somewhere like Cosmo before going on to one of Reading’s many characterful chain pubs, and I guess there’s nothing wrong with that. And perhaps that’s the point of Cosmo full stop – it doesn’t serve the best of anything, but if quantity and range are the most important things then Cosmo is the place for you. I’m just glad I don’t ever have to participate again, and if that makes me a snob I suppose I’m just going to have to suck it up. Maybe I should get a t-shirt printed or something.

I didn’t mention the service, because it isn’t really that kind of place, but what there was was pleasant and entirely lacking in the kind of existential despair I would experience if I had to spend more than two hours in Cosmo. I’ve saved the cost of the meal until last, for good reason. Dinner for four, including two glasses of unremarkable wine and a couple of bottomless soft drinks, came to seventy pounds. But more importantly, and this is what makes it the most expensive meal I’ve ever reviewed for the blog, it cost ER readers over a thousand pounds. Yes, people made over a grand’s worth of pledges (not including GiftAid) to Launchpad to enable them to continue doing their incredible work for the homeless and vulnerable in Reading, work which has never been more badly needed than it is today. And if you haven’t donated yet, but you enjoyed reading this review, it’s not too late: just click here.

So, veni, vidi, icky: I went to Cosmo, just like I promised I would, and I had a pretty iffy meal, just like you thought I would. No surprises there, and that might well be why you sponsored me in the first place. But now the after-effects have subsided, when I look at how everybody rallied round and chipped in, and most importantly when I think about what all that money will achieve for our brilliant town, it’s hard to imagine I’ll have a less regrettable meal all year.

Launchpad

Cosmo – 5.0
35-38 Friar Street, RG1 1DX
0118 9595588

http://www.cosmo-restaurants.co.uk/locations/reading/

Sushimania

When Neneh Cherry released her debut album back in 1989 I don’t think she realised quite how much damage she would do to the sushi industry; there’s still a common misconception that sushi equals raw fish, and that puts lots of people off it completely. Perhaps in light of that, the inappropriately named Sushimania has a large koi carp mural on the wall with the words “so much more than just sushi” above it. This, along with the bright red bar and red and black furnishings make the most of what could otherwise be an uninspiring spot, opposite the Hexagon Theatre (surely one of the foremost contenders for Reading’s ugliest building, along with the Civic Centre next to it). It’s taken over from the equally inappropriately named Thai Nine, which used to do all you can eat Thai, and… err… sushi.

In many senses the change isn’t that marked – it still does sushi, the tables and chairs are still the same and the menu is still all you can eat (for £15.80, in fact). But when we arrived, at 8pm on a midweek night, it was clear that Sushimania was still bedding in because, far from the bustling restaurant that used to be there, this was a much emptier venue. Remember Lobster Room? Well, the sinking feeling on being guided to our table was much the same here.

It took a bit of effort, and a little help from a waiter, to understand how the ordering works. There’s a sheet of A4 paper, folded into thirds, printed with the names of all the dishes with spaces to write how many you want of each. There’s also a glossy menu with a similar list, all photographed and funky looking with brief descriptions of the dishes. We picked from the glossy menu but were stumped to find that the menu didn’t tie to the sheet of paper we’d been given. How were we supposed to pick all of our choices when they weren’t all on the order form? How did it work? Well, it turns out there are four different types of dish at Sushimania, and it’s not exactly all you can eat all inclusive after all. Here comes the science bit: you might want to concentrate for the next few paragraphs.

First of all there’s the bog standard all-you-can-eat; order as many times as you like, no more than six dishes on any round. Simple. Then there is the not-quite-all-you-can-eat;  the dish is included in the all-you-can-eat but you have a maximum of three portions in each visit. Fair enough, I suppose. Next there are the all-you-can-eat-but-you-have-to-pay-extra dishes; most of the time this means an extra couple of quid per dish so it’s no biggie, although you won’t know which dishes this is until you look at the order form. The main items here were all the sashimi dishes except salmon, so if you don’t like raw fish you might be pleased to see that Sushimania does charge a premium for it.

Still with me?

Okay, so the final option is for those dishes which aren’t on the all-you-can-eat menu at all. These are full price and appear in the glossy menu, but not on the order form. They have to be ordered by actually speaking to a waiter, something that is otherwise not strictly necessary in Sushimania. This includes a lot of the interesting-looking stuff I’m afraid: many of the more unusual starters like seared salmon and tuna, the bigger sashimi plates and really quite a lot of the main courses. To recap: there are four different types of pricing and working out what your meal is going to cost is the kind of mathematical challenge that makes the numbers game on Countdown look like the two times table.

The good news, though, is that once you’ve navigated your way round the menus and the food begins to arrive, things start looking up.

My first course was a selection of sushi and sashimi, and it’s fair to say that although Sushimania may be more than just sushi, they’ve got the basics right. I love avocado maki (the creaminess of the avocado against salty soy and seaweed is always a favourite – a simple classic) so I was pleased that Sushimania does them very well – plump, well rolled, far tastier than they were at Thai Nine or are at Yo! Sushi just down the road. Spicy tuna maki, with a dollop of piquant orange-red sauce on the top, were also very well done, as were the katsu prawn uramaki and the crispy salmon skin teriyaki hand roll. Sashimi – both tuna and salmon – was also delicious, although the size was on the conservative side, especially when you’re paying a premium for the tuna (not the salmon, although it’s one of the things you can only order three of – remember? honestly, the menu was a minefield).

At this point we were smiling and patting ourselves on the back for making it through the door and navigating the riddles of the menu. The waiting staff were attentive and interested enough to ask what we thought of the food and it was nice to be able to give good feedback and mean it. We each ordered a second glass of the house white (an ugni blanc which was incredibly easy to drink, fresh and light if not particularly complex) and kicked back a little.

On the non-sushi side of things it was more hit and miss. The Japanese starters were generally very good. In particular the tori karaage was terrific; moist chicken thighs fried until the coating was crispy but the meat was still tender inside, a grown up chicken nugget. The chicken gyoza were super light with nice hint of spring onion to them that made them taste clean and fresh. Yakitori chicken skewers were one of my favourites – again, cooked just right, smothered in sticky smoky sauce and sprinkled with sesame seeds. The prawn tempura, though, was adequate rather than great. The batter was too thick and under-fried and they felt like more of a chore than a treat (although I’m afraid I did eat them all – it always feels especially rude to leave something you’ve ordered on an all you can eat menu).Sushi

The Japanese mains were where I really felt let down – especially as most of the mains I fancied weren’t on the all you can eat menu. We only ordered a couple, because we were getting full by then, but even then they were disappointing. The beef yaki soba was a fun-sized portion of noodles with three or four tiny rubbery pieces of beef plonked on top. It was so short on flavour that the one mouthful I had which contained ginger only served to highlight how poor the rest was. The salmon teriyaki was similarly small and underwhelming; normally teriyaki is rich and salty-sweet but this was thin and underseasoned and the fish itself was flabby with slippery skin. It was a shame that these were our last dishes, because it meant that the meal ended on a bit of a low note; I was sorely tempted to order another round of maki but even I’m not quite that greedy.

Instead we decided enough was enough and asked for the bill. Food for two with two glasses of wine each came to £54 including the optional 10% service charge.

When settling up we complimented the waiter again on the food and he seemed genuinely pleased that we’d enjoyed it – which again felt like a change from Thai Nine where the service always had a rather monosyllabic, functional quality to it. When I started writing this review I honestly intended not to take the “old versus the new” angle, but looking back I can see that’s just not possible. And it’s hard not to be delighted that Sushimania is so much better than Thai Nine was. It’s not perfect by any means: I do think they need to sort out their hopelessly convoluted menu, and based on my experience they might want to erase that wording saying “so much more than just sushi” (or improve the non-sushi dishes, which were such a lottery during my visit) but overall there’s an awful lot more to like here than not. Hopefully it won’t be long before people are having to fight to get a table here – at which point I’ll no doubt complain that it was so much better in the good old days.

Sushimania – 7.4
9 Queen’s Walk, RG1 7QF
0333 3320222

http://www.reading.sushimania.co.uk